Women of the Salt Flats, Part 3: “Get everything you can and take it home with you”

I like to think of the time I spend talking with other backpackers – gathering their travel experiences and to greater extent, their personal journeys as a verbal snapshot – an oral record of a conversation between two strangers who happened to cross paths at a time and place far removed from the routine of their normal everyday lives. And like a snapshot once the image is captured and the camera returned to its case, or in this scenario, the interview concluded and my i-phone  returned snuggly to my pocket, we normally say our goodbyes and shuffle our things from the table or where ever we happen to be sitting and continue along our chosen paths in search of other new experiences to catalog and document.

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Though none of us share the same amount of time, itineraries, or pace of travel – we all share the a same destination. At some point in our respective journeys, we will each face a moment where it is time to pack our backpacks for the final time and board a bus or a plane that will take us back to the familiar and ordinary surroundings of the lives we left behind.

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I met Teresita on a bright sunny morning towards the end of March, as I and a group of four other travelers were herded from a small tourist office to 4×4 jeep that would drive us around the salt flats of Uyuni in the southern basin of Bolivia. Teresita and her boyfriend German, both Argentinian were traveling around Bolivia on a short vacation from Buenos Aires, were they both live and work as computer programmers. Spending the day cooped together in a compact jeep touring the stunning Bolivian landscape and our nights huddled around a small card table trying our best to turn instant coffee into a creative interpretation of a cappuccino afforded us many hours to get to know one another.

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Teresita’s travel stories and her opinions and observations on current events, scientific discoveries, or the state of the global economy had piqued my interest and like a mockingbird drawn to a sparkly shiny object – I knew I wanted to interview her. Since we were both planning to be in Sucre around the same time, we agreed to meet up and spend Easter Sunday in Tarabuco, a small market town not too far outside of the city. But, as often the case with best intentions and tentative plans, something went awry and unfortunately we didn’t connect.

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A few weeks later my journey led me to Buenos Aires and with her address illegible scrawled on piece of paper crumbled and folded in the palm of my hand, I made my way through the cool autumn night air of San Telmo to Teresita’s apartment. We had agreed to have dinner shortly after Teresita finished work, a time of night that would normal find me in the early stages of getting ready for bed. A woman dressed in a short skirt and blouse turned the corner and made her way to where I was standing and asked, “have you been waiting long?” The woman turned out to be Teresita. Dressed in clothing more suitable for a professional office and less so for the Bolivian salt flats had caught me slightly off-guard  and I had failed to recognize her at first sight. In my embarrassment I admitted that I had only just arrived, but couldn’t make out the apartment number I had written down and was in the process of buzzing several of her neighbors, hoping I’d get lucky by stumbling across the right number.

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A few blocks later, gathered around a table for dinner, Teresita and I began to reconstruct the events from our trip in Bolivia the way old college friends who’d fallen out of touch might reminisce about their good old days. It was like opening a box and finding photos from a time and place you had long since forgotten. Even though we had been sitting shoulder to shoulder just a month ago the nostalgia that swirled and gathered between us was as palpable as a cold morning’s fog that hangs heavy in the air. Teresita wasn’t depressed or melancholy, nor was our conversation strained or labored – it was quite the opposite, but now that she had returned to her familiar environment, her job, her apartment, and her friends the dynamic that had existed between us when we were both travelers had changed. The more we talked the more I started to see myself in three months time sitting across from friends and family recounting moments from my trip – my journey too, would be an at end.

As if sensing the sadness creeping across my face, or maybe as a gentle reminder to herself, Teresita offered, “Get everything you can from it and take that home with you. . . You have to have a screen saver or something, so when you are sad you can put your screen saver on and you can think about it. So . . . yeah if you go to a nice place, take your screen saver home because you’ll need it.”

Though my journey isn’t over yet, I can see the end looming on the horizon. And I know she’s right. I will need it.

Here’s Teresita’s story:

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 Name: Teresita Galarza

Age: 34
From: Colon, Entre Rios, Argentina
Occupation: Programmer
Languages: Spanish, German, English, and a little French

My first question is what do you like about traveling? I’m a people person. The most important thing for me is to meet local people . . . to talk to them. And of course, meeting other tourists and hearing about their experiences and what they think about the place. But the first thing is the people and after that, the landscapes and places. Normally I choose to go to places that people who I know, don’t go. Or, they go, but they stay in five-star hotels and don’t get to know the people who live there. They spend their time in the hotels and go with guides, but don’t usually talk to normal people.

Why do you think you like the people over the place or the landscapes, for example? Its like . . . maybe I’m trying to understand life and how they live their lives. How they get the answers that they need, because maybe the answers would be good for me, or not . . . but its like lately I am connecting the language or the way that they talk with their history. And you get to understand how they talk and why they talk like that. I think since I learned German, I could connect the language with the people in Germany. It’s like they are both very structured. But, well I’m not always able to connect the language because I don’t know every language.

And you learned German because you were a student studying there? Yes, right.

want to ask, because we met in Bolivia while touring the Salt Flats near Uyuni . . . I think it was your second time visiting the salt flats? Yes. I’m curious what your thoughts are on Bolivia, Argentina shares a border with Bolivia and yet it’s so different. As soon as you cross the border, you not only see the differences, but you can feel that you are in a completely different place as well. What are your thoughts on the time you spent there, the people you met while you were there, and your general experience while you were in Bolivia? Well there was one thing that I forgot from the first time I had visited . . .I found this time it was the same again. The people were very nice and they were always helpful and would even ask if you needed anything. And that surprised me because I forgot about that. It’s a nice custom and when I asked German if he wanted to go to Bolivia, that wasn’t a reason. I said that Bolivia was very nice, beautiful landscapes, but I forgot about the people . . . It just seemed to be a perfect place to visit because it’s not like going to Uruguay because Uruguay is like Argentina too . . . the people and the customs are very Argentinian. And Chile is more advanced so . . .

What do you mean more advanced? They have less problems. I don’t know if the people are nice or not because I wasn’t there for a long time, but it would be like going to Europe or staying in Argentina . . . it’s not like an adventure.

It’s funny that you say it would be like going to Europe, because a lot people who don’t live in South America would say that going to Argentina is like going to Europe . . . that it’s quite similar. Would you agree with that? Yes, of course.

When you were studying in Germany did you encounter culture shock or did you feel like you were in a comfort zone? I don’t know if comfort is the word, it was very nice and easy because the culture . . . even though they are more structured, we are used to that. We are flexible and very similar. Entre Rios, Argentina is more German in away. . . there are many Germans who came after the second war to live there. So it was easy. Even though it was my first time outside of Argentina, I went there from Entre Rios, I didn’t know what it was like to live in Buenos Aires. It was like going from a very little town to a very big city and I don’t know, for me it was very easy.

And I think you’ve also traveled a good bit in Asia? Yes. Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia. And what was your experience like there? Oh my god . . . it was mind-blowing. It was completely 100% different. Cambodia and Vietnam . . . very different. The food even was very different. And that was difficult. You had to ask every single ingredient. I like to try new things, but I’m not crazy. So I tried to be a vegetarian.

Which is hard in Argentina, although no, I won’t say that because yesterday in Rosario I went to a vegetarian buffet and ate so much food that I hurt afterwards. It was very good though. And in Bolivia it was very easy to eat as I vegetarian. I was surprised. Yes because the meat is very expensive.

And you’ve also traveled a good bit around South America. You’ve been to Chile, Bolivia . . . Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Uruguay. When you travel around South America, what does it make you think about living here in Argentina? Ah like a comparison . . . I think most of the time I didn’t want to stay there. I don’t hate living here, but I would love to live traveling . . . like a year in one place and then a year in another place . . . something like that. It’s like I’m not attached to anything here. I could live anywhere. Even though I’m a people person, I’m not attached to the people living here. And anywhere, I don’t get attached. I just like to know them. You know maybe you keep in contact and ask them how they are doing . . . There is a man in Bolivia, a taxi driver. He was a taxi driver near the mines and we were talking to him and asking him about the mine and he told German something like, “you have to marry her.” And I told him, “no don’t say that because you’ll scare him off.” And after that, the same day he picked up to take us to the bus terminal and he apologized and he said that he didn’t want to scare him off. And we said not to worry that it was just a joke. And German told him that if we get married he would be invited to come to Argentina to the wedding so he gave us his email address and his telephone number . . . so maybe. That would be very weird. But the man was very gentle.

Can you tell about your experience in the mine and what you thought about it? Well the people who work there, they have to do that every day. And I don’t get how the manage to stay inside for 12 hours without eating or anything. They just drink a little bit of . . . well a lot of alcohol. And coca leaves and nothing else. We asked them if they took maybe a little sandwich or something like that and they were very logical and told us that they can’t because there are too many toxins in the air. So they don’t have a choice. And going in and out many times isn’t worth it. I think of me doing that . . . and it’s not for me. And the man we talked to had been doing it for 40 years. Oh my god. And he was working on a Saturday.

Were his children working with him? No, he was alone.

One thing that struck me while traveling in Bolivia was how visible and dramatically wide-spread poverty seemed to be. In my perspective, poverty here in Argentina seems very similar to that in the states . . .it exists, but it is sort of hidden. But now, Argentina is making news about protests with the economic situation getting worse because of inflation and people are starting to feel like they are worse off than they were . . . say five years ago. Do you feel that way? Well, I’m not sure . . . well, there is one thing that I am sure of and its that people who had a lot of money have even more than before. But, I was thinking about something yesterday, for example there are these shows . . . concerts. People from other countries come and play music like Madonna and every kind of band and thirty years ago nobody could have afforded a ticket. When I was a child, I only went to cinema once or twice until I got a job. My parents didn’t travel. Looking at that, I wouldn’t think that we are worse than we were thirty years ago. I’m normally optimistic about these sorts of crises because some of it is just inflated . . . like the inflation. So, yeah of course, we are not perfect. We don’t have everything that we want. But, I choose to believe in . . . well to appreciate what I have and what we have a society. We have advanced in many ways. Maybe this government is good anymore and we need to change it? But, I don’t know . . . we are not worse off than we were before.

You mentioned your parents didn’t travel, how do they view you traveling so much. I don’t know. They never talk about? Well, I didn’t travel when they . . . the first travel was to Germany and they were both alive. But after that, it was only my father and I was . . . sometimes I think about. But you know my parents . . . we moved a lot. We changed houses, about five houses in fifteen years.

If you could give advice to someone who was thinking about doing a backpacking trip, what advice would you give them based on your experience? If you don’t want to drag a big case around you have to choose what you want to wear very carefully. And then, in my experience, when I was nice with people, they were nice to me. So if you go someplace that is different from where you come from, don’t judge anyone on the way they live. They live like that. And they choose to live like that the way you chose to live your life a different way. Try to understand them, you can ask them why . . . since when . . . just don’t judge them. Being a female and if you travel alone you have to be careful with the places that you stay and for me, the Lonely Planet is the best book. They even talk about things that you wouldn’t even thing to ask. For example, in Thailand it is considered bad manners that if there is somebody on the floor with their legs extended, you can’t pass over them. You have to go around them. You wouldn’t think about that because you don’t always find people sitting on the floor or the street, but if it happens you wouldn’t think oh my god I can’t pass over him. Its crazy. And like chewing gum in Singapore is illegal. So, try to get informed about the laws and the customs and maybe the food. Ah, but you being a vegetarian didn’t have any problems . . . there is always something good to eat.

What makes you the most proud to be an Argentinian? I don’t know that I am proud. I’m not the opposite either. It’s not that I’m ashamed or something it’s just that I never thought about being proud . . .

Is there something that when you go away, you think “oh, I can’t wait to get back home too? No, it’s always the opposite. I always want to stay where I am, enjoying it. I was talking with a friend of mine about that because she is very attached and she always misses her family and everything. And I never do that. I doesn’t mean that I didn’t love my family, but I didn’t miss them. When I was in Germany I felt guilty because my mom always told me how much she missed me and I was just like, “okay, bueno.” I love her, but I was having a good time. I don’t know . . . well when I was a child I didn’t spend too much time at home. Normally I went to my friends and spent times at their house.

Do you ever get depressed after a trip when you return home? No. Luckily not. I’m realistic I have to work. I have to do things even if I don’t like them. I try not to always find the negative, because if I did I would spend all my time trying to fix it. The thing I choose to change if I’m not happy is my job. If I’m not happy there, well then it’s on to the next one. Because I spend there 90% of my living day because the other part, I’m sleeping. So if I’m not happy there . . . it’s not worth it.

And you’re happy now with your job? Yes. It’s a little crazy, I guess. I don’t know where I got it from because every time I would tell my father when I changed jobs because I wasn’t happy., he always asked me, “but why?” He always worked in the same job for over twenty years, even if he wasn’t happy. But, yeah I was very different from my parents.

Is there anything you want to share that I haven’t asked you about traveling? Well, I talked to my friend about her last travel because before she went, she was very stressed. She was thinking about taking a book just to read it when she had time. And I asked her if she was going to the beach for instance, because if she wasn’t . . . why read a book if aren’t going to be there again? Just enjoy it. Get everything you can from it and take that home with you. And at home, when you are sad – think about that experience. You have to have a screen saver or something, so when you are sad you can put your screen saver on and you can think about it. I enjoy books, but when traveling I normally don’t do that. Maybe the lonely planet, but that’s the only book that I read. But when I’m some place, I like to see what people do. What the little birds do. so . . . yeah if you go to a nice place, take your screen saver home because you’ll need it.

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